John Bennett/ November 22, 2020/ Change, Development

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I remember with fondness the gatherings around my grandmother’s table for a home-cooked meal that expressed her love for us. I remember conversations and time spent together with extended family and friends. I’ve continued this tradition with my own family, and we often have 12-18 people join us for dinner and “fellowship”, as my father called it. With the physical distancing guidance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a tense political and social standoff occurring across the country, the celebration will take a different form this year.

As the various end of year holidays (e.g., Thanksgiving, Bodhi Day, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Christmas, Las Posadas, and Kwanzaa) approach, I am reminded that these traditions focus on celebration, gratitude, and coming together. Celebrating and staying connected with family members and friends is challenging as we continue to maintain physical distances during the Covid-19 pandemic. Also, with the challenges we face related to the heightened awareness of social injustice and racism along with the deep political divide that we currently face in the US, sometimes I wonder how much more can we pile on? These circumstances add stress and present unique challenges when we gather with our family and friends. Add to this the fact that many have developed clearer perspectives about their beliefs and values related to the topics and issues of diversity, religion, politics, and social justice. In doing so, we may have grown bolder, eager to share our point of view (especially on social media), defend your position and actions, or wish to change the minds of others.

First, let’s recognize that we may have been taught that topics such as politics, religion, sex, race, injustice, inequality, and differences were not topics for the dinner table or to be discussed “in polite company“. Well, differences exist. Strong relationships are forged through the discovery of similarities, as well as differences. Deep and meaningful dialogue should involve seeking to understand and appreciate differences, so learning and growth can occur. When we push the boundaries of our values, assumptions, and beliefs, it is possible to have a healthy, productive, and valuable conversation across our differences.  I believe the biggest challenges we face in these situations, are a lack of skill to engage in dialogue vs. debate, overcoming social norms about politeness, the fear that our beliefs or actions will be challenged, and the concern that engaging in difficult conversations might lead to changes to the relationships we hold dear.

Second, there are many reasons conversations about difference may be further difficult. These include the realization that we have different opinions and values from others. We may feel challenged or threatened, especially when our perspective is part of how we identify ourselves. Wishing something for someone that they do not want may result in being hurt, or involve our fear of hurting others. To express your perspective and know that it is different from those around you can result in feeling separated. We see the “in” and “out” groups within a group or family/friend circle. If you lack clarity about a topic, you might lack the confidence to explore a topic among a group of friends or family members. Engaging in a conversation across differences may surface biases and prejudices within you, others, or the group or organizations in which you are a member. And, approaching these conversations from the perspective of defending or advocating a point of view might challenge our ego and pride.

Third, as social beings, humans look for ways to “fit in”. Groups (including families) have social norms—ways of doing things. We look for confirmation about our decisions and beliefs and tend to reject data that disconfirms our decisions and beliefs. Most people take in news from sources that share their points of view and avoid information to the contrary. (Gladwell, 2019Social Dilemma, 2020). And, we like to know that we are safe—unchallenged, confirmed, supported. (Edmondson, 2019). As we think about how we’re connected to others, I find the hierarchy of connectedness by Karp & Fletcher (1999) to be particularly helpful. They note a range of connection that runs from the most disconnected to the most connected: Annihilating, Ignoring, Valuing, Rejecting, Tolerating, Accepting, Understanding, and Valuing. We do not need to look very far to see examples of each of these in the news. How does this continuum apply to your relationships? Where would you like the relationship in your life (and the ones you seek to develop) to be? 

Fourth, as the holidays approach and you connect (and hopefully keep the appropriate physical distance) with others, here are some tools and actions you can take to engage in difficult conversations:

  1. Be courageous. Have the courage to engage in conversations across differences. 
  2. Create space for dialogue. Invite others into the conversations. Ask question. Pause before responding to statements made by others. Use “and” more than “or” and “but”
  3. Be curious. Be open to learning from others who have different perspectives.
  4. Ask genuine questions of others and yourself. Using your curiosity to explore topics. Ask others to expand (not defend) on what they’ve said. 
  5. Listen for understanding. Be as willing to listen as you are to talk.
  6. Focus on interests, not positions. We tend to be curious about interests and defend the positions we hold. 
  7. Be willing to step away: walk, read, listen to music, etc. Sometimes it is best to take a break from a group or conversation. Practice self-care. 
  8. Own what you discover. Be willing to acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions. Use phrases like: “I had not considered that perspective”, “I realize my understanding of the topic was limited”, or “I see how my reaction may have limited our conversation”.
  9. Look for common ground. What do you have in common, or what is similar to others?
  10. Check your body. What reactions do you have when others speak and when certain topics are (or not) discussed? Notice if you (or others) are talking faster or louder, get quiet, change facial expressions or body positions, get a tear in your eye, or feel a knot in your gut. 
  11. Be prepared for surprises. If you are being curious and open, you are likely to be surprised. Be willing to share what surprised you and to explore what about it was surprising. Welcome the surprise as a possible new perspective on the topic or the relationship. 
  12. Be an ally to those who need your support to be who they are and help them express themselves in ways that are right for them at this time.

As you prepare for a conversation that involves differences, consider these questions:

  1. What makes this conversation particularly challenging for me? For them?
  2. What would I like to occur?
  3. What will I do to support dialogue vs. debate?

Relevant even today, during his 1954 sermon delivered at the Second Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said

“…But the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness—that’s the atomic bomb that we’ve got to fear today. [The] Problem is with a man …

I invite you to confront the atomic bomb inside each of us and to find ways to engage others to build understanding. May be peace with you. May the strength of goodness carry you forward. May you take time to breathe. May we care for one another—not just ourselves. And, may we seek to understand so that we value our differences.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1954, Second Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan.

Are you looking forward to Thanksgiving, and/or other holidays coming up? How will you be celebrating and preparing for difficult conversations? I’m interested in your thoughts and plans, so please leave your comments, feedback, and suggestions below.

Main photo by fauxels from Pexels


References, Resources, and Further Reading

Bohm, D. (1996). On dialogue. London: Routledge.

Carson, C., & Holloran, P. (Eds.). (2000). A knock at midnight: inspiration from the great sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Edmondson, A. C. (2019). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Finton, C. (November 9, 2020). Conversations on polarizing topics are possible. If you’re up for It, here’s how to start. 

Gladwell, M. (2019). Talking to strangers: What we should know about the people we don’t know. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company.

Johansen, B. (2020). Full-spectrum thinking: How to escape boxes in a post-categorical future. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Karp, M., & Fletcher, B. R. “OHMYGOD, do I really have to deal with this issue?!”: The gift of sexual orientation. In A. L. Cooke, M. Brazzel, A. S. Craig, & B. Greig (Eds.), Reading book for human relations training (8th ed., pp. 127-132). Alexandria, VA: NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science.

Oluo, I. (2019). So you want to talk about race. New York, NY: Seal Press.

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., & McMillan, R. (2011). Crucial conversations tools for talking when stakes are high, (Second Edition). McGraw-Hill Education.

Singleton, G. E., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Stone, D., Patten, B. & Heen, S. (2020). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. New York, NY: Penguin.

The Social Dilemma (movie) (2020)


© 2020, John L. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.

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